Former Arizona politician sentenced for human smuggling in Utah

Paul Petersen, who received prison time in two other jurisdictions, will spend 11-15 years in prison.

FILE – In this Nov. 5, 2019, file photo, is then-Maricopa County Assessor Paul Petersen, right, and his attorney, Kurt Altman, as they leave a court hearing in Phoenix. Petersen, who has acknowledged running an illegal adoption scheme in Arizona, Arkansas and Utah, was sentenced in Utah on Wednesday, April 21, 2021. (AP Photo/Jacques Billeaud, File)

A former Arizona county assessor was sentenced for human smuggling in Utah in a case of adoption fraud.

The Utah Attorney General’s Office says Paul Petersen illegally transported pregnant women from the Marshall Islands to the United States. Couples in Utah paid $40,000 to adopt the children under false pretenses about the legitimacy of the adoption and the care being provided to the mothers.

“Petersen exploited families in the Marshall Islands and Utah to benefit himself financially,” Assistant Attorney General Daniel Strong said in a news release. “His abuse of the adoption process — which should be sacrosanct — is particularly egregious.”

Court documents filed by the AG’s office say the women were offered $10,000 to give up their children. A woman allegedly working for Petersen told a social worker that she would go to the Marshall Islands to “find pregnant women to adopt their babies out.” They were not given adequate prenatal care before giving birth, according to an investigation from the AG’s office.

Attorney General Sean Reyes said in the news release that protecting child victims every day is emotionally and physically exhausting, but said his office feels some closure since Petersen was given the maximum sentence for the charges.

Petersen’s lawyer, Scott Williams, said his client did not victimize anyone.

“The word smuggling is completely inappropriate and the state knows it,” he said. “Nobody in this case did anything that they didn’t want to do.”

Williams said Petersen didn’t fight the charges because he didn’t want to drag adoptive families and birth mothers into the spotlight by having them testify in court. He said protracted court proceedings would threaten the sanctity of the adoptions Petersen helped create.

Reyes said in the release that nurses and medical professionals brought forward information that initiated an investigation into Petersen.

The scheme didn’t just take place in Utah.

Petersen has also been sentenced to prison time for doing the same thing in Arizona and Arkansas. The Utah sentence will run concurrently with his sentences in those jurisdictions. He will ultimately spend 11-15 years in prison, according to the news release.

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